Three years ago, I attended ACRL’s Information Literacy Immersion. The name is corny, but apt. It’s intense. Not every hour of it is the Best Experience Ever, in a large part because many of the faculty weren’t very good teachers (which is ironic, isn’t it?). But the chance to have a full week to really sit back and think about pedagogy was a wonderful thing.
Since then, I’ve done a lot of teaching, my co-workers and I spent some time teaching each other our best modules and philosophies last year, a friend attended this year’s Immersion, a few others and I organized “Mini-Immersion” for the instruction librarians of the 5 liberal arts colleges in the Oberlin Group (more about that later), and I’ve participated in some great LSW FriendFeed discussions (like this one) that forced me to really think about what I do, what I’ve learned, and what I still have to work on.
So what did I retain from Immersion ’06? In my head, I think of it as both a lot and not much at all. It feels like a lot because a few things fundamentally changed the way I approach instruction, I hope for the better. At the same time, I know that there are a lot of specifics about learning theories, learning styles, and assessment techniques that I’ve forgotten, and I’m pretty sure there were other things that I don’t even remember having learned in the first place. I remember being bored with several sessions (and my notes from those sessions are uselessly dominated with things like “so tired,” “kill me now,” and “death by handout”), but I don’t remember what I was supposed to be learning during those sessions.
And yet, I would recommend the experience to anyone who does instruction because the three things that changed my instruction have been just that valuable to me. Your three things might be different, but hopefully they’ll be even half as valuable. My three are:
- Be your authentic self when you teach
First of all, I love Randy Hensley. He was our instructor for the sessions on instruction, and he is A-Maz-Ing. Baruch is lucky to be getting him. But that’s not really a learning outcome, just my overwhelming impression from Immersion. Back to what I learned. Lots of what I had read about instruction included becoming a perfect teacher-person. This person was able to make students laugh, gain their trust, be wise, be organized, be spontaneous, be an authority figure… in other words, be one in a million. So I’d go into classes trying to impersonate this amazing teacher. And because I’m pretty good at impersonations, this stood me in good stead for a while, but it left me less willing to try things I was less comfortable with because I was already using up all my energy projecting Perfect Teacher onto everything. Learning to play up my strengths was so freeing. It meant that I could give myself permission to include mini-lectures if that’s what the class called for (even though the literature is constantly telling me that it should be Active Learning or nothing), or feel free to start a class on citation with an “I’m such a dork that I actually LOVE citation” attitude, or not feel like a total failure because I’m kind of bad at leading discussions while my co-worker can draw students out like you wouldn’t believe. It also gave me permission not to care about things that felt gimmicky to me, because if it felt gimmicky to me, there’s no way I’d make it feel important and relevant to my students. Basically, it taught me that just like not all clothes look good on all people, so also all teaching “best practices” will fit into my classroom. And that’s ok. What counts is that I interact authentically with my students.
- As you’re planning a session, get in the habit of switching from “I will teach” to “I want the students to learn.”
If I want to be thorough, I build real learning goals using the formula “The students will” + [verb phrase] + “in order to” [goal]. So, for example, “Students will recognize key functions of a database interface in order to navigate unfamiliar databases by making educated guesses about functionality and options.” Then I figure out everything students will have to know it order to do this (it could be quite a lot!). I don’t always have time or energy for developing formal learning goals, but at the very least I always consciously switch from “I will teach” to “the students will learn,” and suddenly my decisions become easier.
- You can get to 2-4 learning goals in a 50-minute session. Seriously. And usually more like 2 or 3.
There’s always so much to teach and so little time, but packing more in there really won’t help anyone. Figuring out learning goals helps me to prioritize not on the level of “I’ll emphasize x over y and give z the least time,” but also by helping me decide what to leave out altogether. Which is always sad, but necessary. (I get around this by making subversive handouts for most of my classes.)
Since Immersion, I’ve added one more maxim to my list: Shifting the emphasis to active learning and constructivist pedagogy doesn’t negate the need for some straight up, potentially boring, pedagogically outdated training. My students need to know the difference between a journal citation and a book chapter citation, and I want that piece to take 3 minutes rather than 15 so that we can get to some actually interesting active learning. But now, I use learning goals to help me make a choice about where this kind of training is important in a class rather than using that as my default.
So yeah, I’ve learned quite a bit in the last three years, but there’s a long way to go. I’d really like to figure out how to draw students out more effectively in discussion. I’d like to think more about how to emphasize the transferable skills in everything they learn. I feel like my active learning components lack creativity. And I’d like to figure out how to work with professors even more closely to make sure that we each reinforce the others’ work with the students so that my one-shot session doesn’t just wither by itself on the syllabus. I really think library sessions can reinforce or even advance the content piece of the course, and I think the professors can work information literacy pretty innocuously into more than just the one day without sacrificing time or content (I’ve seen it happen over and over, and I’m hungry for more of that).